The Florida Project director Sean Baker, co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, and breakout stars Bria Vinaite, Mela Murder discuss working with Willem Dafoe, childhood and more.
Childhood is a precious part of one’s life. It’s the moment in which precarious precociousness is accepted–nay, even encouraged–as being a part of everyday life. Whether it’s that old tire swing that was found behind the abandoned house or the strange slime that has to be poked down the street, there’s always some banal identity that to a child might as well be the World’s Fair.
And while that childhood may not be everyone’s memory (it certainly is mine), that is the childhood that is revisited in Sean Baker’s bonafide critical hit, The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s newest feature tells the tale of a group of inquisitive, rambunctious kids living off an interstate motel that is ironically named The Magic Castle Hotel. Their parents are missing, working, or worse. There’s no supervision, leading the children to have an unhinged basis of morality.
And yet while that may sound dreary on paper, the film is anything but. Directed with a fierce naturalism that few films hope to achieve, Baker takes what he learned in Tangerine and elevates it to a new level of maturity and grace. But while some critics may have labeled the film white-trash cinema, The Florida Project is a deeply humanistic film, relishing in the unsavory behavior of its characters and yet presenting them as people who are concerned not just with eking their way through life–they want to live it too.
The Knockturnal hit the New York Film Festival carpet to chat with some of the brains behind the indie darling, including director-writer Sean Baker, co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch and stars Bria Vinaite (who plays Moonee’s unhinged mother, Halley) and Mela Murder (playing Scooty’s mother, Ashley). Check out what they had to say below.
Plucked Out of Obscurity
Sean Baker is known for being a director that works with nonprofessional actors. In them, he finds an earnesty that is seldom seen in trained actors. Baker’s actors work tirelessly to provide a humanistic perspective on fringe society, creating a truly honest portrayal of their characters. But how does Baker find these wildly talented individuals? It turns out, just as many do in the fast-paced 21st century world.
“Sean Baker found me on Instagram,” revealed Vinaite. The newcomer went on to explain that Baker “told me a little about the movie and he got me into some acting classes right before we started filming.” Her counterpart, Mela Murder, had a slightly different story, albeit with a similar tinge of luck. “I did a short film called Gang and it won a Vimeo Staff Pick so that’s how Sean discovered me.” Murder continued that, “he reached out to me, saying that he basically wrote the role of Ashley with me in mind because of my character in the short film, Gang.”
Baker’s Preoccupations with Following Up Tangerine
Tangerine was quite the hit when it hit theaters two years ago. It not only showcased a societal landscape that few had ever seen before, it did it all in the confines of iPhone camerawork. It was an audacious feat, one that many herald as being the first truly cinematic experience as recorded through an iPhone. Furthermore, the film’s focalization on transgender actors was welcomed, leading Magnolia Pictures to begin an Oscar campaign for the actors in Tangerine. Therefore, it was no surprise that the shadow was long for Baker to follow-up his most successful film.
“There was a lot of pressure. Many people thought that was my first film–even though it was my fifth film. Then I had to see this film as a sophomore film and had to treat it as such,” said the director. Baker went on to realize, “but then I also learned that you have to prove yourself every time out. So there’s always pressure. I don’t think the pressure ever goes away.” Baker realized the reputation that Tangerine had afforded him, so he knew he had to follow it somehow–albeit, not formally. “I wanted to approach this subject matter in the same style as Tangerine and I don’t mean in the hyperactive, music video style of Tangerine” said Baker. The director unpacked his thinking behind The Florida Project, explaining, “I mean more in the way we are covering this serious subject matter in a very comedic way–we’re laughing with these kids, we’re having fun with these kids. I want people to see this like Little Rascals in 2017.”
Exploring the Juxtaposition Between the Glitzy and Downtrodden
Disney World has a strange kind of existence. While it’s known as “the happiest place on earth,” hardly the same could be said of its surrounding areas. Filled with cheap motels, low-income housing, and bizarre individuals, the locale that encircles Mickey Mouse’s kingdom is not a pretty one. And yet, Disney World is regarded as one of the top destinations for family vacations, coming off as a pristine microcosm in an environment filled with precariousness, both economical and moral. But the dichotomy between both worlds is perhaps the most interesting quality of The Florida Project.
Co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch explains that, “Sean Baker loves to do movies about people on the fringes and finding interesting backdrops to tell stories that we’ve always had in our heads.” He goes on to dissect the juxtaposition by saying, “the fact that this motel life is happening in the shadow of Cinderella’s castle next to what is the most magical place on earth, and yet these families are having lives that are anything but magical, really struck a chord. I felt there was a story there.”
Bergoch continues, “I looked at this like writing a Disney movie because those kids, even though they live in motels, are having the same amount of fun we did playing whiffle ball, tag, and other games. That’s what seemed really cool to us.” Bergoch elucidated the perspective, revealing “it didn’t matter the surroundings–they were having the same sort of childhood imaginative adventures. I was trying to grow the story from that.”
Tangerine hits theaters October 6.